The excellence of the Royal Order of Adjectives

A few years ago, I learned there was a most excellent tool I’d been writing and editing with intuitively for most of my career, but I never knew it had a name: the Royal Order of Adjectives. What on earth is this so-called Royal Order? It’s not “royal” in the Queen Elizabeth II sense of the word, but Google the term and you will find numerous charts showing this royal order. Some of them vary ever so slightly, but in a nutshell, the royal order is simply a method of ordering our adjectives.

I was explaining this to a couple of writer friends recently, and I was so pleased that, like me not too long ago, they’d never heard of this order, either. Yet I asked them, “If I were to mention ‘the red big tractor,’ that would sound weird, right?” They agreed it would. Yet the tractor is red, and it is big, so what’s the problem? The problem is that we’re used to hearing adjectives listed in a certain order. We expect to read about “the big red tractor,” not “the red big tractor.”

Let’s try it with an object I’m much more familiar with, a teacup. Suppose I have one that is vintage, and it’s made of porcelain, and it’s from England, and it’s beautiful and pink. If I write, “the vintage porcelain English beautiful pink teacup,” that’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it?

Or I can describe the teacup this way: “the beautiful vintage pink English porcelain teacup.”

Ah, much better. That’s because the Royal Order of Adjectives is this: determiner (the), observation (beautiful), size, shape, age (vintage), color (pink), origin (English), material (porcelain), qualifier, and noun (teacup). You’ll note that I didn’t use all of these types of adjectives in my teacup description. In my writing, I probably wouldn’t use more adjectives than the ones describing the teacup above. Yet if I need to edit someone else’s writing and they choose to use a long string of adjectives, I find it immensely helpful to have a chart at my fingertips that will help me order them just so. Perhaps some of you will want to print or download this chart for your writing tool kit as well. Here’s the one I like. I’d love to know what you think about this chart and whether you’re familiar with it!

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5 thoughts on “The excellence of the Royal Order of Adjectives

  1. How interesting! I can certainly see the usefulness of the chart, although I think it is something I do intuitively.. I’ve bookmarked that page so I can find it again when I need it! Thanks.

    • I agree, Joy! I think we just know what sounds right most of the time. But there are those “iffy” cases when I need to untangle a sentence, and this chart is quite useful then.

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